Persepolis (2007)

2018 #27
Marjane Satrapi & Vincent Paronnaud | 92 mins | streaming (HD) | 1.85:1 | France & Iran / English | 12 / PG-13


Adapted from co-director Marjane Satrapi’s autobiographical graphic novel, Persepolis is the story of an Iranian girl coming of age in the ’70s and ’80s, during and after the Iranian Revolution. Such a broad description is probably the only way to succinctly summarise it, because it’s kind of a sprawling film, about many different things — just like a life, I suppose. As well as being part biography, it’s also part history lesson, with a normal-family’s eye-view of the revolution and what followed.

Some of the events we’re shown are crazy-specific to her life (Satrapi has certainly lived a life!), and some of it is very specific to her background (i.e. all the Iranian Revolution stuff), but some of it is also very universal. For example, a sequence where she falls in love with a guy sees him depicted as a perfect, angelic boyfriend that she spends many magical times with… until he sleeps with someone else, then when she reflects on their relationship he’s an ugly ogre, and all those wonderful memories have a rotten mirror. Plenty of us have been through something akin to that, right?

Such subjective depictions are one of the benefits of the film being animated. Drawn in a simple, cartoonish style and mostly presented in black-and-white, the visuals are striking and sometimes very effective, but can also have something of a distancing effect — the atrocities of the revolution don’t hit home in quite the same way when, say, they’re executing a black-and-white cartoon rather than a real girl. Conversely, it was Satrapi who insisted on adapting her novel in animated form, with the goal of keeping it universal — in her opinion, “with live-action, it would have turned into a story of people living in a distant land who don’t look like us. At best, it would have been an exotic story, and at worst, a ‘Third-World’ story.” I suppose there’s some truth to that.

Punk is probably ded in Iran

I believe the film was produced in French, but the copy I had access to only offered the English dub. Unfortunately, this is frequently quite poor — the actors sound like they’re reading out slabs of text as quickly as they possibly can, rather than really delivering the lines. I can only presume this was necessary to fit the animation, but the end result leaves the audio feeling like a bad school presentation. I don’t hold this against the film itself, but it’s a word of warning if you have a choice of audio.

Persepolis is only an hour-and-a-half, but it’s a long one thanks to the scope of what it covers. It’s a frequently dark and bleak film too, taking in not just a violent revolution but also things like depression and attempted suicide. Frankly, it’s the kind of film which I don’t know if I’ll ever bother to watch it again, but it’s also a fascinating and informative experience that I’m unquestionably glad I’ve seen.

4 out of 5

Ten Little Indians (1974)

aka And Then There Were None

2016 #120
Peter Collinson | 94 mins | TV | 1.66:1 | Italy, West Germany, France, Spain & UK / English | PG / PG

Ten Little IndiansThe third English-language screen adaptation of Agatha Christie’s famed mystery, one of the best-selling novels of all time, relocates the action to the middle of a desert but is otherwise a word-for-word remake of the 1965 version — though it does lose the gloriously ’60s “Whodunnit Break”. (Both versions were made by the same producer, who would later remake it again in the ’80s.)

It’s interesting, therefore, that this lacks the atmosphere or tension of that version. I don’t think it’s just because I’m now more familiar with the story (having seen not only the ’65 version a couple of years ago, but also the new BBC adaptation that was on last Christmas) — it feels rushed at times, like a summary of the novel rather than a full retelling. Considering the screenplay is nearly identical to the ’65 version (merely tweaked to reflect the relocation), I can only assume that’s down to the way director Peter Collinson chooses to handle certain sequences. For example, in this version I never bought the relationship between youngsters Hugh and Vera, and sequences like the group searching the cellars contain no real sense of menace.

The cast is made up of recognisable faces from ’60s/’70s European cinema, led by Oliver Reed and Richard Attenborough, but also including the likes of Herbert Lom, Gert “Goldfinger” Fröbe, and Adolfo “Emilio Largo” Celi. Not that anyone’s bad, but there’s the sense they were probably there to earn a bit of cash while having a nice exotic holiday, and making a film on the side.

As a précis of the storyline, with some nicely photographed locations (the Iranian hotel they filmed in looks fairly stunning), this isn’t half bad. However, there are at least two better screen adaptations of the novel, and if what I’ve heard of the 1945 film and ’80s Russian adaptation are to be believed, I guess this comes pretty far down the chain.

3 out of 5

Argo: Extended Cut (2012/2013)

2015 #13
Ben Affleck | 130 mins | Blu-ray | 2.40:1 | USA / English & Persian | 15 / R

Oscar statue2013 Academy Awards
7 nominations — 3 wins

Winner: Best Picture, Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Film Editing.
Nominated: Best Supporting Actor, Best Original Score, Best Sound Mixing, Best Sound Editing.

Argo: Extended CutArgo is probably the most traditionally entertaining from 2012’s crop of Best Picture nominees. I know a lot of people awarded that honour to American Hustle, but David O. Russell’s film left me largely cold, and, even with OTT performances and funny lines, I think it is actually a very awards-y kind of film.

Argo, on the other hand, is a straight-up espionage thriller. Based on a true story that you’d dismiss as too ridiculous if someone had made it up, it tells the tale of CIA extraction expert Tony Mendez (Ben Affleck), charged with rescuing six US officials who escaped the 1980 attack on the US embassy in Iran and are hiding at the Canadian ambassador’s residence. Tony’s plan is to fake the production of a Star Wars-style movie, fly in to Iran on the pretence of location scouting, and simply fly the officials out posing as his crew. To make the story look genuine, he enlists Hollywood makeup artist John Chambers (John Goodman) and producer Lester Siegel (Alan Arkin) to all but set up the movie for real. Then all Tony has to do is pop over to a country where Americans are despised and fly their six most-wanted fugitives out on a commercial airline flight.

I think Argo is a winner — with audiences, that is — because of its deft mixing of humour and tension. It begins with the latter, showing the siege in Iran in accurate detail (the end credits contrast photos of the actual event with the film’s recreation, lest you were in any doubt). The US public are concerned about the dozens of embassy employees held hostage — there’s wall-to-wall news coverage, plenty of gung-ho vox pops, etc. The US government, meanwhile, flounder about what to do about the escapees — in very-need-to-know secret, of course, because if news gets out… well… With no good plans, this is when Tony cooks up his Hollywood idea, and he jets off to California to set it up and prove it can work.

HollywoodThis is where we get the humour, mainly directed at the movie industry. Some say this is why it won the big awards: Hollywood loves a look at itself, and here it’s both satirical (“So you want to come to Hollywood, act like a big shot, without actually doing anything? You’ll fit right in!”) and congratulatory — after all, the plan goes ahead and so (spoilers) Hollywood saves the day. The film creates just the right balance between taking the mick out of Hollywood and bigging-up its role in saving some lives, while also not spending too long on this section that we forget the perilous situation on the other side of the world. After all, once all the fun and games in Tinseltown are over, it’s back to the serious business in Iran.

When we return there, lives are very much at stake, under genuine threat from the Iranian militia if the six are discovered. The latter sequences where Tony sets about actually extracting them are loaded with unease, particularly when, to maintain their cover, they actually have to go on a location scout, complete with government guide. These six embassy employees — secretaries, effectively — are of course not trained spies, but nonetheless must know and be convincing within their cover stories. They have overnight to learn complete identities in case they are quizzed, knowing that even the slightest mistake could spell their capture, and their capture would inevitably lead to their death.

As director, Affleck’s one arguable misstep during all this is the OTT climax. (Spoilers follow, naturally.) In some respects it’s an awkward case: in reality, Tony and the rescuees boarded their flight home with no problems — their tickets were pre-booked and the flight left at 5:30am, so there weren’t even any guards on duty. That would make a bit of an anti-climactic ending to a Hollywood thriller, though, so of course it needs to be jazzed up. The sixThat’s just artistic licence, really — it’s not as if these people were safe, they just had a damn good plan; and, as I said, you need a dramatic ending for a thriller. However, all the “chasing them down the runaway” stuff is a bit full-on and action-movie-ish. It’s not even accurate to how it would go in real life, if it had happened, because the militia’s cars would need to be travelling phenomenally fast to keep up with the plane, and they aren’t seen to be affected by its jets either. For me, the rest of the climax — the guards checking the ‘crew’ out, phoning the LA office, later running up to the control tower, etc — all works; assuming you accept the film is still a Hollywood thriller, not a fact-bound documentary, and so needs a suitably dramatic climax. It’s a shame they didn’t leave it at that, but not a deal breaker either.

This extended version adds about nine minutes of material, primarily in the form of a subplot with Tony’s wife and kid, which from what I can tell was all but excised entirely from the theatrical cut. It’s a humanising subplot rather than an essential part of the narrative, but I also didn’t feel it got in the way of what else was going on, and was surprised to learn it had been removed so thoroughly. There are also a variety of little moments reinserted, plus some alternate shots and takes used, often for little apparent reason. For the interested, it’s detailed in all its infinite intricacies here.

Argo is perhaps an unusual Best Picture winner in the current era. It’s the kind of film that would have been a mainstream hit back in the ’70s or ’80s, back when adults still went to see adult movies rather than solely committing themselves to comic book effects extravaganzas. (A fact I stumbled across the other day: Kramer vs. Kramer earnt over $100 million at the US box office. Serious movieThat was in the ’70s — adjusted for inflation, it comes to over $350 million. For a drama about a couple divorcing and arguing over custody of their kid! Today, it’d be lucky to earn a tenth of that, even if it was up for Oscars. But I digress.) It’s a surprising Oscar pick these days because it’s a genuinely enjoyable watch, rather than a gruelling look at something-or-other serious.

Occasional slips aside, it’s a well-made, highly-entertaining, real-world spy thriller. Was it the best picture of 2012? Maybe not. The best movie? Maybe.

5 out of 5

This is Not a Film (2011)

aka In film nist

2014 #97
Jafar Panahi & Mojtaba Mirtahmasb | 79 mins | DVD | 1.78:1 | Iran / Persian | U

This is Not a FilmYou know the kind of people who wait ages and ages for something and really want it and pre-order it or whatever and then when it finally arrives they… add it to a pile and don’t get round to watching/reading/listening to it for even longer than the ‘forever’ they were waiting in the first place? If you don’t, you do now — that’s me.

I first read about This is Not a Film when it premiered at the 2011 Cannes film festival (coming up to four years ago now). “Films where people sit around in rooms and talk to themselves in a foreign language” isn’t among my favourite of movie genres (it is for some people though, so each to their own), but nonetheless this one sounded like an intriguing must-see. My personal hype for it built further through multiple praise-filled reviews, the slow crawl through distribution deals being signed, and the long wait for a UK cinema or DVD release… Finally, a British DVD debuted in March 2013. My copy arrived and I put it on a pile. Just over 18 months later, I finally watched it. (Because it was going to be on TV. That’s often a catalyst for me.)

Jafar Panahi is, I suspect, not the kind of man who waits ages for something and then when it arrives does nothing with it. Quite the opposite, in fact: he’s the kind of man who’s told by law he has to wait ages to do something, and instead does it straight away. After being banned from filmmaking for 20 years, and while waiting for a decision on his appeal against the sentence, Panahi invites his friend and fellow filmmaker Mojtab Mirtahmasb to his house, where the latter films the former as he reads and enacts portions of the screenplay for his intended next project, as well as chatting about the nature of filmmaking. This is not an iguanaTo be precise, Panahi’s ban is from filmmaking, writing screenplays, leaving the country, or giving interviews, so they conclude that reading aloud an existing screenplay while someone else films him doesn’t contravene any of those rules. Nonetheless, the edited (not-a-)film was smuggled out of Iran on a USB stick hidden in a cake in time for its Cannes premiere.

That result is certainly an atypical film viewing experience. The form has a natural looseness, a wavering focus, a lack of structure — all of which is deliberate, and yet not deliberate. It’s not the raw footage — it has been edited and shaped; but only to an extent. After some preamble where he checks in with his family and his lawyers, Panahi starts to describe the film he wanted to make, but is frequently distracted by the futility of the exercise — cue the film’s famous quote, “if we could tell a film, then why make a film?” — before returning to it regardless, because that was the goal of the exercise. In the end, he never really finishes it; certainly not the whole film, anyway. This is Not a Film is not a film told by a man in his own front room, but that is part of it.

So what is it, then? It’s a statement, I suppose, but not so bluntly as an actual statement would be. It’s main message, perhaps, is that art and artists will find a way — you can try to suppress them, but if they want to speak out they will continue to try, and they will find the gaps in your rules that allow them to do so. But it’s also about the nature of movies. What is a film? Is this a film? And if it isn’t a film, what is it? The screenplay Panahi is describing isn’t a film, it’s a series of ideas and concepts that he’s explaining. Does him explaining it make it a film? No, because it lacks the input of important filmmakers like the actors (in one sequence, Panahi demonstrates how the improvisational style he uses generates unpredictable results) or the cameraman (Panahi attests he knows nothing about technology). This is not nothingIn fact, despite the singular input and focus put into this ‘project’, it could be used quite successfully as part of an argument against auteur theory. But that isn’t what it sets out to do either.

What does it set out to do? Nothing… and yet, obviously, not nothing.

By this point you have probably got the gist that this is not a mass-appeal movie. It’s one for students and fans of film, or for those interested in artists working under oppressive regimes. It’s a behind-the-scenes documentary for a film that doesn’t exist; a polemic that never polemicises; a portrait of the artist that has to eschew most of his art… yet, in the spaces around what can be shown and what is shown, it is all of those things. (Just to get a bit pretentious about it.)

For those on the fence about whether This is Not a Film is deserving of an hour-and-a-half of their time, I think the whole exercise is worth seeing for the climax alone. As Mirtahmasb leaves to go home, the stand-in maintenance man for Panahi’s apartment complex arrives to collect the trash. They get talking and, with nothing better to do, Panahi comes out with him on his rounds. A bizarrely captivating elevator ride follows, Panahi holding the camera as he just chats with the guy about his life, his work, his goals; not an interview, but an informal polite natter. It lasts, unbroken, for many minutes, and ends with them emerging outside, to a stunning, unexpected, though equally logical, and no doubt highly allegorical, final shot. The whole sequence makes you begin to question: was this staged? Or a genuine serendipitous event? Questions you may ask about the whole film; This is not a setquestions that are always worth asking about purported documentaries.

Whether This is Not a Film is a film or isn’t doesn’t really matter. It makes you think — and actually, all that oppressive regimes ever really want is to stop you thinking. Unfortunately for them, that’s one thing they can’t control so easily.

4 out of 5

Children of Heaven (1997)

aka Bacheha-Ye aseman

2009 #83
Majid Majidi | 82 mins* | TV | PG

Children of HeavenChildren of Heaven is an Iranian film, which means it’s in a Foreign Language and it’s Subtitled. And yet, it was on ITV. Sometimes the mind boggles. Still, it was relegated to a post-midnight showing, so some things never change. Indeed, the one thing that inspired me to watch it is that it’s referred to by Roger Ebert in his wonderfully evangelical (about film, not Christianity (thank God!)) article to commemorate reaching 100 entries in his Great Movies series. I recommend it, incidentally; Children of Heaven comes up for good reason about halfway through.

The film itself is a charming little number, with a simple story about a brother and sister that nonetheless runs itself on inventive incident — the amount of (pleasingly light-hearted) drama it can ring from one missing pair of shoes is, in many ways, quite extraordinary. It also contains moments of simple beauty and pleasure, like blowing bubbles while cleaning or sunlight glittering on the goldfish pool. This is more what I had in mind when someone described Slumdog Millionaire as “feel-good”.

Speaking of which, Children of Heaven adds depth with an amiable commentary on poverty: this poor family live in close proximity to such rich ones, but they can all get along. When Zahra sees another girl wearing her shoes, she doesn’t confront her or demand them back, even when the other girl’s dad buys her a brand new pair and the all-important pair are thrown away again. Halfway through, Ali and their father go up to town and we see how the other half live — enough glass-fronted skyscrapers, dozen-laned roads, tree-lined avenues and blindingly-white mansions to rival any metropolis. And yet they don’t get angry at their lot, and the film doesn’t shove the obvious comparison down your throat. It doesn’t go for the simplistic and oft-tried “poor have little, but have each other so are ultimately happy; rich have lots, but are lonely and so ultimately sad” conclusion (though it does, briefly, err along that path), and nor does it end with the family getting rich and managing to move up in the world.

In fact, the finale deals solely with the issue of the shoes (pun not intended). It’s a long-distance running competition in which Ali must come third in order to win a new pair of sneakers. It’s nail-biting and a beautifully conceived idea — he doesn’t need to win, he needs to come third. If only mainstream films were so simply innovative more often.

Unfortunately, several plot threads feel underdeveloped or unresolved, ultimately coming across as a pleasant but unnecessary aside — the elderly neighbours, for example, who Ali delivers soup to in one scene, or the persistent landlord. The viewer can read more into these if they wish — the neighbours representing the generosity of those with nothing, for example, while we can assume the landlord is eventually paid off now Ali’s father apparently has better employment — but the film itself does nothing with them. There’s a difference between not spelling things out and just abandoning them, and perhaps Children of Heaven falls on the wrong side of this divide. It’s most galling at the very end (after the race), when the film seems to just stop abruptly. IMDb notes that originally there was an epilogue explaining Ali’s future which is for some reason absent from the American-released version, and the presence of something like that is indeed missed. However, the interweb can also provide theories on how the foreshortened ending does have significance, with the goldfish being symbolic, if one chooses to look for them.

But no matter — it seems churlish to complain about such diversions. Children of Heaven is a beautifully simple and good-hearted film and, apparently, a great way to introduce children to the notion of having to read while watching a film.

4 out of 5

* This is timed from ITV’s broadcast. The listed running time is 89 minutes; with PAL speed-up this would be c.85; hopefully the remaining three are accounted for by snipping the closing credits.

(Originally posted on 6th February 2010.)